Grow-hio: Midwestern farmers rely on Eliot Coleman’s advice for cold-weather farming

As winter approaches, even the most knowledgeable of local-foods-loving shoppers have wondered what fresh produce they will find over the winter months, and the opening of a year-round market here in Wooster has only increased the frequency of that musing. Happily, I can point to a handful of our producer members who are likely to have greens and other vegetables coming from their high tunnels or hoop houses, taking a page from Eliot Coleman, the all-season farmer from Maine and author of the new book "The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses."

Coleman has established himself in recent years as an innovative organic farmer working in challenging conditions and finding ingenious solutions. His key suggestion for growing fresh crops throughout even the harsh Maine winters involves the use of unheated greenhouses paired with floating row covers to increase the temperature around tender crops. This system has evolved to include movable cold houses that can be shifted from summer hot house crops such as tomatoes over to summer-started winter crops of greens and roots. By getting a jump start while the days are long enough to promote growth, the plants reach near-maturity before the days shorten significantly, and they can then be picked in succession throughout the winter months.

"In other words," Coleman explains, "we were not extending the growing season as one hopes to do in a heated greenhouse but, rather, we were extending the harvest season."

Over the past few decades, he has tried other solutions, such as brief minimal heating in the greenhouses and a wider variety of crops, and "The Winter Harvest Handbook" brings his previous books (especially "Four-Season Harvest") up to date. Through all the testing and use of different methods, he has kept the goals of simplicity, low cost, and energy efficiency in mind. The farm's processes have also been organized carefully: "We aim for a goal of never leaving a greenhouse bed unplanted, and we come pretty close."

Coleman makes a solid case that all of this experimentation has proven worthwhile, and "The Winter Harvest Handbook" offers extensive details for everything from preparing the beds to maintaining and harvesting the crops. The methods outlined can be translated elsewhere to continue to provide healthful fresh food throughout the year as well as to increase the profits of "dedicated local grower[s]... selling a premium product."

breezy-hill-produceGiven that the winters in northeastern Ohio can be equally daunting — while we may not have as much snow or as frigid temperatures as Maine, we get a lot less sunshine — it's no wonder that local farmers have picked up on Coleman's techniques and begun to implement them in their own production methods. And with a growing demand for local foods all year round (such as we're finding now at Local Roots Market), farmers who have begun to plan their own winter harvests can easily expect to gain a faithful following.

Phil and Mindy Bartholomae of Breezy Hill Farm and Kevin and Amy Leamer at Por-Bar Farm have dazzled Local Roots shoppers each week with their selection of winter greens, root vegetables, and lingering summer crops such as tomatoes and hot peppers. (Personally, I love the Bartholomaes' Hakurei turnips, seen here at right, and was delighted to find that the Leamers had rutabagas available for the holiday season!) Since we're heading into the slow harvest months, I asked both couples about their winter crops and Coleman's influence.

What crops have you planted for this winter?

The Bartholomaes: We have leaf lettuce, spinach, bunching onions, radishes, Hakurei turnips, beets, carrots, tatsoi, mizuna, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, and mint in the tunnels.

The Leamers: Asian greens, European greens, lettuces, cabbages, root crops, peas, fava beans -- and constantly acquiring other varieties for winter starting in our greenhouse and transplanting into our high tunnel beds.

How and when did you first encounter Eliot Coleman's work?

breezy-high-tunnel

Mindy and Phil Bartholomae

Phil and Mindy Bartholomae: We had always dreamed of getting into farming big time; we always hung out at our favorite farmers' stands at our Saturday market when we lived in Cleveland. We then were transferred to Chicago in 2006, and though we knew the farm dream would have to be put on hold, we vowed to get every book available on the subject and study, study, study! I then enrolled in the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener program and lapped up the sections on organic farming. I attended organic farm tours and then a weekend conference with Coleman as the keynote speaker. He was so understated, but so resourceful and full of knowledge about these very old methods of intensive gardening/farming with no outside input and season extension.

Kevin and Amy Leamer: We discovered him approximately 9-10 years ago via the Internet (especially the Johnny's Selected Seed site) when we started researching organic farming. We found his books and eventually purchased "Four Season Harvest."

What parts of what you read carried the most weight?

The Bartholomaes: The biggest revelation for us was how critical soil health is. We take it for granted as simply a medium for roots to form in and be supported. And then we add fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, etc., when the plants don't look healthy! Our produce is nothing without balanced, complete soil, achieved only by mimicking nature as best as possible, i.e., adding humus through animal or green manures and rotating crops so as not to deplete soil nutrition by one crop's demands.

porbar_herbs-growing_2009The Leamers: Eliot's examples gave us the courage to act on our "instinct" that a viable small farm operation could succeed with polyculture methods, contrary to the naysayers suggesting that large monocultures were the only profitable agriculture model for the modern economic climate. Trading expensive chemical inputs for good ol' labor and working with nature just made sense to us. When we started outlining our farm plan, we referred to Eliot's variety recommendations and season extension methods. We were inspired and encouraged by information he gathered from trips to the south of France where he encountered much fresh produce available in the middle of winter.

What methods/tools/crops of his do you use on your farm?

The Bartholomaes: We have 2 high tunnels, one a "cold" tunnel with 2 layers of plastic and no added heat, and the other with some added heat to keep above 26. We also have used row covers of spun polyester out in the field to protect established crops from cold as well as to protect seedlings from insects.

porbar_gh1day1_20081007

Kevin and Amy Leamer

The Leamers: We have (2) 24' X 48' plastic covered (inflated double layer) greenhouses and (2) 30' X 120' plastic covered (single layer) high tunnels. The tunnels each have (7) 3' X 120' raised beds giving us approx. 1,600 row feet for our crops. This provides us valuable season extension and year-round growing capabilities. Our growing system utilizes only passive solar heating and non-powered mechanical ventilation and wind for cooling.

We combined his seasonal variety suggestions (with our own personal tastes considered), crop rotations, Integrated Pest Management practice (intercropping, something we learned from Joe Kovach and his test plots at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster), and various information amassed over a good part of 10 years or more through our own large gardening/small farming experiences.

We constantly replenish our soil ecosystem with Eliot's green manure crop strategies, and our favorite "farm machinery" is his broadfork that we use for gently working our raised bed soil.

What have been your results so far?

The Bartholomaes: We moved to the farm last October, got our first tunnel covered by November, seeds started indoors in December and January for planting in the tunnel in February, and with the increasing day length at that point, things grew like mad. It was so gratifying! We harvested spinach, greens mixes, lettuce, radishes, beets, carrots. We then transitioned to warm weather crops in the tunnel: peppers, eggplant and tomatoes. This summer we sold at two farmers markets and for Fresh Fork online, and this winter we are selling at two markets.

porbar_ht1_2009The Leamers: We've witnessed the obvious advantages of having fresh "out of season" varieties available, improved plant/fruit quality, and excellent natural pest/disease control. The most rewarding aspect has been the positive interactions with market customers who seem to share our enthusiasm for a "fresh" approach to farming. We are quite humbled, yet motivated by the praise and encouragement given by quite a diversified age range and demographic of our customer base.

How did you get interested in the Local Roots market?

The Bartholomaes: I think it was through Dave Benchoff whom we had met at last year's Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) Conference. [Note: Dave is a member of the Local Roots board, past president of the local OEFFA chapter, and co-owner of Banzhaf Garten Organic Farm.] We are just so excited to be able to provide beautiful produce in the winter and are thinking this will ultimately be our greater focus than growing during the height of the summer season, when competition is stiff and there's a glut of produce. We are thrilled that all the amazing folks at Local Roots have made this really happen and are excited to have a regular outlet for our produce!

The Leamers: We learned about Local Roots from a producer member at the Medina Farmers' Market this summer. We visited the web site and were immediately impressed with the professional, well-organized, progressive approach to providing fresh local food. We joined promptly. Local Roots will provide us an excellent opportunity to expand our market potential year-round to provide fresh local food especially during the traditionally dormant Ohio winter.

Photos courtesy of the Bartholomaes and the Leamers, used with permission.

2 Responsesto “Grow-hio: Midwestern farmers rely on Eliot Coleman’s advice for cold-weather farming”

  1. I have hesitated to invest in these greenhouses because I see so many crushed ones littering the local farm land. Snow and high winds are not kind to these structures.

  2. Kevin Leamer says:

    Walter,

    As with any specialized endeavor, one must certainly research and understand the equipment and processes involved.  Selection of the proper type & quality of equipment for ones particular location/situation cannot be emphasized enough. Likewise, "cutting corners" in the name of cost saving can surely be the downfall in this particular season extension strategy.

    Our growing system is situated on a hill in an open, high wind - moderate to heavy snow region and therefore we made our purchase and construction decisions with this in mind.

    It sounds as if people in your area  where you "see so many crushed ones littering the local farm land", could use some assistance and education. I would be happy to pass on what we've learned these past 2 winters to anyone wishing to contact us.

    Your local university / farm extension offices as well as the major land grant university websites offer an abundance of information on this and many other sustainable growing and season extension methods applicable to any size operation and region.